Detroit Police Department
October 29, 2003
I’d done the things I was accused of over the years. All of them. Except what I was accused of this one time. This time, I had played it straight. Hell, I even gave that woman a break.
The Internal Affairs detectives had me sitting in a room just like one you’d see on TV. The table in the middle of the room. The metal chairs. An exposed light bulb with a wire cup serving as a fixture. I gripped a cup of weak black coffee in a Styrofoam cup. My knuckles were busted from fighting and I had permanent callouses that had formed from all the blisters from the fires. I was in uniform. My shirt and pants were starched but my leather boots and gun belt were scuffed. I was no rookie. I was grandfathered in before they banned the tattoos. I had a full sleeve, and my shoulders and chest were covered. There was even an electric piranha swimming up my neck from my collar. I’d gotten a few since they banned them on exposed areas, but the brass wouldn’t know the difference. They didn’t know shit. Even the ones that had come up through the ranks seemed to forget what it was like on the street. A white shirt or a suit seemed to suck the experience out of guys who had probably done the same shit I had. Maybe worse. But I did what I did for instant gratification. Those assholes played the long game; they collected dirt and then climbed the ranks on the rungs of secrets they knew.
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of questionable shit to let a woman out of a traffic ticket or, on a few occasions, a shoplifting charge. Even took the stuff from the store and said it was “evidence” and then let her keep it. A couple of times I’ve returned after locking up a husband or boyfriend—or even girlfriend—to “comfort” a vulnerable woman after a domestic. I’ve stolen drugs from the evidence room. Used them and planted them. I’d hit people I was pretty sure were guilty with a leather sap to get a confession. Three years earlier I shot and killed an unarmed suspect but quickly dropped a Smith and Wesson K-Frame I kept in my cruiser hidden behind the tire jack next to his right hand. I played the odds. Most people were right-handed. He was. A “South Florida throwdown” the cops called a dropped gun, not that I was near South Florida. Detroit was about as far away as you could get from South Florida.
So, the two detectives were in suits. Cheap suits but suits, nonetheless. I hated these rats. I had no idea how you made it through the academy and hit the streets with your brothers and sisters only to go after cops instead of the perps. They asked their questions; it was easy to keep my story straight because it was one of the exceedingly rare times I was telling the truth.
“Officer, you don’t want a lawyer or union rep?” the more senior detective said.
“Don’t need one” I said. And I didn’t because I hadn’t done anything. This time. The woman was saying I pulled her over and made “sexual advances,” I wasn’t worried. They told me the timeframe she was alleging, and I knew I’d been halfway across town getting gas at the city pumps and knew the CCTV cameras would clear me on this one. I’d pulled her over hours before she said I did. Ironically, I gave her a break. If I’d called in the stop on the radio and issued a citation my alibi would be even stronger. She was stepping out on her husband, was late and was blaming it on me. Saying I’d kept her pulled over for an hour when it was less than five minutes. No good deed.
After the pumps I’d been off my beat getting dinner at a taco joint the DEA had told us to steer clear of. I didn’t. This whole thing sounded like bullshit. I had no idea if this was just to sit me down so they could ask me real questions. What did these guys know? Did they know what I really did for the Motor City?
Did these pricks know how I saved this crumbling city? By setting fires. Fire by fire. They didn’t; and I wasn’t about to tell them. Rats.
I knew what they didn’t know.
One way to save a neighborhood is to set fires. It’s all about aggressive zoning.
An unexpected flash thunderstorm had left the streets slick, the potholes filled to the brim. I drove my marked Ford Taurus down a one-way street littered with trash. I pushed the ray of the strobe light against the projects lighting up clusters of people huddled in doorways and at the edges of the narrow hallways. The windshield wipers slapped, paused, and slapped again in a steady rhythm. Throngs of people scattered as I turned the corner. They always did. It was a one-way street going east with a parallel street one street over going west. It created a type of drive thru for crack. Pay on one side, around the corner pick up the dope. Dope and money never together. There was a short street running perpendicular from a main road to the eastbound street, with a bodega at the intersection. There was a payphone. Anytime there was a payphone on my beat I disabled it during midnight watch when nobody was around. Usually, I’d cut the cable with bolt cutters; sometimes I’d put gum or super glue in the coin slot.
This bodega even sold a crack kit. Seriously. Paper bag with a pipe, brillo. Just add crack. It was time to burn it down. Literally. I was thinking about it when my sergeant raised me on the radio and asked to meet. We pulled our cruisers alongside each other with the driver’s doors facing each other so we could talk.
“Hey sarge,” I said feigning interest in what he had to say. He had five fewer years on the force than I did. Shitty cop, good test taker. Intelligent but stupid. Bad at chasing perps. Good at shining shoes and kissing ass.
“Uh, huh” I kept saying not sure what I was agreeing to. It sounded like it was a complaint from one of the female officers on my shift. Something I said, I guess. About a stripper maybe. I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t remember. I didn’t care. Wasn’t the first time; wouldn’t be the last. But it was being handled in-house so I knew it wouldn’t amount to shit.
He seemed to be waiting for me to say something. I just stayed silent. I like annoying this prick.
“Yeah, Sarge it’s me, what’s up?” I asked.
“Yeah what?” the sergeant said… “will you sign it or not.” He was talking about a discipline form he had shown me earlier, right after roll call.
“What’s the rip on it?” I asked, sure he had just told me, but I wasn’t really listening.
“I just told you Krebs, three days. Unpaid.”
I went silent again. I would agree but this guy and his three stripes were going to have to wait another minute or so.
“Yeah, I’ll sign it,” I said.
“Fine,” the sergeant said, “this week, Wednesday through Friday.”
This was a punishment? Halloween night and the nights before and after were a nightmare in Detroit. The night before, Devils Night, and Halloween the Detroit Fire Department answered over 100 calls for service.
I would add a few to that. Having the nights off would make it easier to go on a spree, but it would erase my alibi. Being on duty is a hell of a good alibi when the embers started to glow. It was one I’d used many times in the past. You knew how to work the radio and you could be anywhere in the city. Or not be anywhere.
I had a van. I bought it at a sheriff’s auction in some small town in rural Michigan. It was only the four lights on the roof away from being the A-Team van. Black with the red stripe. Bar across the rear top, even had the red rims. It was a little conspicuous for its intended use; ironically, my marked police interceptor was less conspicuous in the projects, but it would have to do.
Even off-duty I heard the dispatcher talking in my head. On-duty it was all 911 calls, who needed help, who was getting slapped around, who wanted who out of the house since the monthly check had run out. On and on. Off duty, it was still my dispatcher’s voice. I heard it. All the time. She was telling me which houses to burn.
I wore black cargo pants and a black sweatshirt. Black boots. I had a shoulder holster with a Sig 9mm under my left arm.
I was going to torch a crack house.
To the ground.
It made me a good cop. A great cop.
I ignored the fact that they rarely hurt anyone and that they were casualties of the endless drug war, a cure clearly worse than the disease. Mental health. Not crime. If anyone was acting like a warrior, it was me; I was the only combatant.
I hoped the houses were empty.
The idea wasn’t mine. The brainstorm came from a legend with the LAPD when crack first hit the streets in the early 1980’s. He set fires for years, him and two other guys from his precinct would throw a flash bang in, disperse the dope fiends, and leave a slow burning Molotov cocktail with a long wick in their wake.
The Legend and his crew never got caught. Only cops knew about it. Word spread.
I did the same. Ten times before tonight. Two before midnight on Devil’s Night.
My plan was to torch a thirteenth house, then the bodega on my beat and call it a night. Thirteen was not my lucky number.
Halloween Morning. 2 a.m.
Devil’s Night had been over for two hours when I stepped into the abandoned one-story dilapidated house on one of Detroit’s most lethal streets.
“Where did the dog come from” I thought as it barked and lunged at me. I thought about shooting it, but I didn’t normally shoot dogs. I had a conscience. Through a gap in the moldy, clapboard wall I saw two uniforms approaching the structure. I had no idea how they found me.
Even though I have a conscience, survival instinct kicked in. I threw the Molotov cocktail at the dog and then shot it between the eyes. The crack of the round leaving the barrel with a flash ricochet against the silence. The dog slumped. The uniforms drew their weapons. What I had going for me was their training. They didn’t rush the house. They crouched for a second out of instinct and looked for cover. Then, they approached. Tactically.
I moved quickly to the rear door of the house walking over what had become a mud floor interspersed with crack pipes and garbage as the wood had rotted and been absorbed by the grainy black soil. As I began to move, my breathing accelerated, causing the smell of urine and shit that pierced my nose to become more intense.
I ran out the rear door and cut through the backyards of the neighboring houses. Fortunately, most of the fences I had to scale were sagging and the laundry on the lines partially blocked the sightline of the cops who were now chasing me. Still, they stayed on me.
“Stop! Police! Stop! Police!” they both yelled.
I didn’t. I just hoped they didn’t shoot me in the back.
I made my way to a corner and then a short cluster of trees that allowed me to double back towards the van. They had lost me in the shadows. As I knew, chasing armed perps was no picnic. Every corner they rounded they had to stop, peek, and then proceed without rounding the corner into the barrel of a gun.
I ran to my van, opened the unlocked rear door, made my way to the driver’s seat and cranked the engine. The cops were running behind me, down the middle of the deserted street.
I pulled away. In the rearview mirror I saw one of the cops, the younger one, with his hand across his body gripping the mic near his shoulder. Talking. Calling in backup. I drove with my left and lit a Molotov cocktail sitting on the passenger seat with a lighter in my right. The slow burn of the wick began its deliberate path to the bottle. I took my hand off the wheel and lowered the driver’s window. I drove with my right, reached across with my left hand, and grabbed the cocktail. I pulled it across my body. My plan was to hurl it back towards the officers running down the street. Maybe hoist it into a parked car. All I needed was a distraction. A second to dip onto a side street and disappear. The running cops knew they didn’t have to catch me, just keep me in sight. The radio would catch me.
I never got the chance. A ghetto bird appeared above me, and the floodlight sprayed light upon my van. I could hear the rotors cut against the cold Michigan air. It blinded me for a second. I jerked the wheel without thinking, in a moment of panic.
I dropped the cocktail. It pitched over my left shoulder and landed behind my chair. Out of reach. I estimated the wick only had about twenty more seconds. If it was still lit, but there was no reason to believe it wasn’t. It was all I would need.
The bodega was a hard left turn one hundred fifty feet ahead. I opened the door and got ready to bail. I steered towards the store—my ultimate target—my service to the Motor City—my swan song. I was going to bail and let the van roll. I figured I still had ten seconds to get out while still steering long enough to save the neighborhood.
I was just about to plow in through the front door. There was nobody around. The store closed at midnight. I heard sirens wailing; the helicopter hovered. The running cops hadn’t caught up yet. I’d have time to bail and snake through the narrow alleys of the projects to escape. The van was registered to me, so my cop life in Detroit was over. But I could start a new one. One on the run. I could still protect and serve. One fire at a time. And fire is eternal, like I would be. A legend.
I was wrong, by ten seconds.
The van exploded.
M.M. Harrold is a frequent crime and trial TV pundit, former law professor and former cop. He lives outside Washington, DC.